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Chapter 15

Chapter 15

Well-being and quality of life

Forwarding the Action; Psychological Flexibility, Resilience, and Well-Being

Our mission is to help you thrive. We want you to thrive and experience well-being.

It starts with mindful awareness and making the right choices. Thriving and well-being are byproducts of those choices being transformed into powerful positive habits.

We began this book with a quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: "Life is the sum total of all your choices.” Is this literally true? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that choices determine much of our success in life – as well as our failures. Choices can lead to greater satisfaction, and they can also lead to misery. However, that’s not the complete story. Making the right choices is necessary, but not sufficient.

For the most part, we know what the right choices are. We should floss after every meal, get sufficient sleep, eat balanced and nutritious meals, be kind to others, end procrastination, and so on. Ask anyone for a list of all the choices they should be making, and they will give you quite a lengthy list. Obviously, knowing what the right choices are is not enough. True, we do occasionally develop some ironclad, lifelong, incredibly positive habits from making some really great choices, but it’s a hit or miss process.

All too often we make good choices that are short-lived, like choosing to lose weight by going on a diet, only to have the diet soon go the way of most diets. We start a new exercise plan, but get frustrated and go back to our old routine. We vow to get a head start on projects, only to wind up in a frenzy to get things done at the last possible moment. We make lofty and inspiring New Year’s resolutions, and we know how that turns out as well. Each January 1 many of us begin the new year full of enthusiasm and commitment. How’s that going on March 1? February 1? January 2?

Yes, we need healthy choices, but we also need to stick with those choices long enough for them to become healthy habits. Therein lies the problem.

Often our choices don’t stick around long enough to become habits. Sometimes existing bad habits are so strong that our healthy choices can’t gain any traction. We may make choices with clear intention, full resolve and solid commitment, first thing each morning, only to have those choices evaporate by evening. What would Goethe have to say about that?

So, we’d like to propose a modification to Goethe’s pronouncement. Yes, we believe that life is the sum total of all your choices – but we believe that’s particularly true with choices that have become habits, or will become habits through repetition and practice. Of course there are circumstances in life that are largely beyond your control or totally out of your control, but there are also a great many opportunities to take charge of your life.

This is problematic. Choices can become habits, but habits can be good or bad, useful or destructive. We’ve all made bad choices and we’ve all developed bad habits. Also, we all know the frustration of trying to break bad habits. Habits are tenacious and often more powerful than our resolve to change them.

Next, add the concept of “automaticity,” the idea that most of us are on autopilot a good deal of the time. We are creatures of habit and we tend to mindlessly repeat what we’ve done before — the more repetition the stronger the habit. Being on autopilot characterizes much of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, but for the most part we’re mindlessly unaware of the role of habits and we cling to the illusion that we have full freedom of choice.

This was a point being made by the father of Behaviorism, BF Skinner. He maintained that we deceive ourselves about our autonomy from past events. According to Skinner in his 1972 book Beyond Freedom and Dignity:

In the traditional view, a person is free. He is autonomous in the sense that his behavior is uncaused. He can therefore be held responsible for what he does and justly punished if he offends. That view, together with its associated practices, must be re-examined when a scientific analysis reveals unsuspected controlling relations between behavior and environment.”

In his 1948 book Walden Two, Skinner stated:

Some of us learn control, more or less by accident. The rest of us go all our lives not even understanding how it is possible, and blaming our failure on being born the wrong way.”

We’re often living out a script, predictably following established patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, all the while thinking we have full freedom to choose. It’s an illusion. Literally 45 to 50% of our behavior is habitual.

Enter the concept of “mindlessness,” as opposed to “mindfulness.” Since we are largely creatures of habit, and often on auto pilot, we are "mindless" a good bit of the time. This is not a put down. It’s simply part of the human condition.

So, where does that leave us with Goethe? More importantly, where does that leave us as therapists in regard to helping people change? Aren’t we working against the natural tendency of people to be mindless and on autopilot? Isn’t it human nature to make choices we don’t follow through with, and isn’t nearly half of our behavior habitual? How much choice do our clients have anyway? How successful can we be if we’re working against long-standing powerful habits? How much choice do we have in making changes?

Let’s tackle that last question. There are after all circumstances beyond our control, or situations where our choices are very limited. So, how much choice do we have anyway? Some answers can be found in the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. Lyubomirsky’s focus is happiness, but her work has very real implications in our discussion about choice.

Lyubomirsky, together with Ken Sheldon and David Schkade, identified the most important factors that determine happiness. As indicated by the following chart 50% of the difference between individuals’ levels of happiness is accounted for by a genetically determined “set point.”

The happiness formula

According to Lyubomirsky: “the implication of this finding for happiness is that like genes for intelligence or cholesterol, the magnitude of our innate setpoints – that is whether it is high (a six on a seven-point scale) or low (a two) or in between (a four) – govern to a large extent how happy we will be over the course of our lives.”

Don’t let yourself get depressed by this finding. Whatever your genetic programming, it’s still modifiable. Even identical twins vary in their chosen behaviors and habits. How about those circumstances beyond your control?

A surprising finding was that only 10% of the variation had to do with life circumstances such as being rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, married or divorced, etc . Even here however, are these things really completely beyond your control? It would seem that some of these factors may only be perceived as areas where there are no choices, when in fact circumstances could change. It simply might take more courage such as changing jobs and moving to a different part of the country, or making the tough decision to leave a partner. For the most part, people often feel they have to live with their situation, for better or for worse. Keep in mind this section is only 10%. Most people are surprised at the low percentage, thinking that much more of their life is beyond their control.

The slice of the pie most interesting to us is the 40% that has to do with our choices, or to quote Sonja Lyubomirsky:

Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e. seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities. With this in mind, our pie chart illustrates the potential of the 40% that is within our ability to control, the 40% for room to maneuver, for opportunities to increase or decrease our happiness levels through what we do in our daily lives and how we think.”

Great news! This research has solid application to well-being and our practice of Mindful Choices Therapy. Although Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues have been studying happiness, their findings apply equally to well-being. We have choices, and actually 40% which is quite a lot. This gets us back to Goethe and the central theme of this book.

Here’s the Mindful Choices for Well-Being formula:

1. You cannot change anything you are not aware of. For most of us, much of what we do, say, think, and feel is automatic, pre-scripted, habitual. Change requires awareness.

2. Awareness is best accomplished by embracing mindfulness, training in mindfulness skills, and mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is a discipline that requires practice.

3. Within the context of mindful awareness, you become more acutely aware of all that is going on within you and outside of you. You become an observer, and you develop the ability to live in the now rather than ruminating about the past, or allowing yourself to be overly anxious about the future.

4. Through our Mindful Choices Self-Assessment, you become more aware of how well you are functioning in 10 specific areas that dramatically impact your overall well-being. Through regular self-assessment you are able to fine-tune your knowledge of very specific things you might choose to change.

5. Embrace the idea that at least 40% of your life can be under your conscious control. You can make great and lasting changes once you identify specific goals, and embark on a sustained process to achieve and maintain those goals.

6. Identify specific areas where growth and change are most important to you. Select areas that are most meaningful and most indicative of your values. Hint: you must prioritize. It’s impractical to work on changing everything at once.

7. Maintaining conscious awareness, conducting regular self-evaluation, and utilizing powerful tools can be transformational. All that is needed to work the process is patience and persistence.

8. Take the Mindful Choices for Well-Being Self-Assessment monthly or at least every six weeks. We suggest you use the same profile sheet but a different color every month so you can see the progress or lack of progress in specific areas. This turns out to be highly motivational, particularly when you realize that making progress in one area generally means that you have made progress in other areas as well. All choice areas are interconnected.

9. When you run into difficulties, don’t be discouraged. Some changes are more difficult than others. Researchers have found that the key to making changes stick is one thing – perseverance! People who make major changes like quitting smoking, losing weight, or furthering their education, simply persist in spite of obstacles or setbacks.

10. Recognize that choices alone are although necessary, are insufficient. Choices must be repeated, again and again, until they become enduring habits. Conversely, unwanted habits wither away when there are no longer reinforced. Our process of “Habitualizing” incorporates findings of neuroscience on how habits are brought under conscious control and either strengthened or replaced by healthier and more positive habits of your choosing.

Mindfulness, Choice, and Habit are the Keys to Well-Being and Happiness

  • Become mindfully aware of good choices and bad choices, good habits and bad habits, mindfulness and automaticity
  • Mindfully, Systematically and consistently turn good choices into good habits (Habitualizing)
  • Good habits boost your well-being
  • Increased Well-being will boost your happiness

11. Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation need to be regarded
as a quality of your life, and not simply practices you engage in now
and then. They need to become so much a part of your life that you
find every aspect of your life being powerfully influenced by the
practice — and it’s a lifelong practice with incredible benefits.

So, is your life the sum total of your choices? Yes, but to a larger extent, you are all about the habits that grow out of repeatedly making the right choices. Once you understand this process and have the tools to bring about change, all you need is faith in yourself, and perseverance.

This has been a book about improving your life through systematically improving your experiencing of well-being. Our intention was to go well beyond a typical self-help book and provide concrete tools and strategies. Moreover, we have provided a systematic roadmap for steadily improving your everyday life. We believe our roadmap is transformational and can lead to lifelong satisfaction and greater happiness. We wish you the best on your journey.

Carpe diem!

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